City On Screen
Jul 4, 2023
Matthew R. Ford
Matthew R. Ford
Justin Edgar, Martin Simms, Ian Francis
NEW TO UK FILM REVIEW
Critics Chris Olson and Brian Penn host UK Film Club - a new film podcast covering all film types. From blockbusters to old favourites and even indie & shorts.
Take a journey Birmingham’s untold and underappreciated cinematic history as well as its ambitious and vibrant future in City on Screen, a Brummy-made documentary from Matthew R. Ford that sets out to inform audiences that there’s more to the city than Brum and Peaky Blinders.
The film mixes the history of Birmingham’s cinema and television heritage with the personal stories and experiences of its director and narrator, as well as filmmakers, creatives and industry leaders such as Daniel Alexander, Andre Pierre and Kevin McDonagh. A vivid picture is painted of a city and region with talent, locales and creativity to offer, that has often been overlooked in place of alternatives across the country. An emergence of bright individuals, and the unprecedented success of Steven Knight’s Blinders series however gives new hope that the untapped potential of the Midlands is to gain prominence in the future.
City on Screen is an informative and driven documentary – though one that is a little dry and overlong. Its factual narrative is driven by the interesting, relevant and significant story of Birmingham’s decline as a media landscape and the real impact lack of representation has on its residents, and the fightback from those living in the region to bring their ideas to the screen. The linking of the factual and historical story to the emotional journeys of his contributors (and indeed his own life) is a smart move on behalf of Matthew Ford, and one that humanises and colours the film. The varied cast of interviewees paint a fascinating look not just at Birmingham’s media scene, but the filmmaking landscape in the UK in general – and offer both insider insight and criticism of how invisible barriers emerge, particularly against those from working class backgrounds. Other pivotal, contemporary figures from the region such as Steven Knight and Felicity Jones are featured in archive footage, which is presented effectively as a highlight reel of talent from the area even in the absence of their formal contribution.
However, the film does drag at times and is packed with filler which stretches its runtime close to an hour mark that is really unrequired for the actual core of the topic. Tenuous links are raised to Shakespeare and Tolkien which slam the narrative being built to a standstill, without convincingly claiming the writers or their works as being inherently Birmingham-made (certainly Stratford-Upon-Avon residents will not be impressed). The lack of score or background music during the talking-head segments feels more and more prominent as the film goes on, and whilst the inclusion of clips from classic blockbuster films as reference points does enliven the documentary, these also feel tenuous and become slightly scatter-brained throughout the runtime.
While the film does have rough edges, the core topic itself is still explored strongly and is not negated by the issues with runtime or dressing. It is clear that Ford’s research and understanding of Birmingham’s film history is profound, and one can’t begrudge him making a few flourishes too many whilst presenting this history in a way that manages to be personal as well as factual. Coupled with excellent contributions, City On Screen is highly recommended as an important and grounded examination of Birmingham on screen.